Monday, 13 February 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 20

As we reach the big twenty, let's all pause for a moment's silence, to think with reverence upon all the joy that nineties anime has given to the world: the giant robots, the normal-sized robots, the pervy tentacle demons, the super-powered cat girls, the pocket monsters and the endless Blade Runner rip-offs.  Let's bow our heads to appreciate Manga's early efforts in bringing some of the best - and much of the absolutely worst - anime to the West, and to consider the many others who've nobly endeavored to spread the word: MVM, ADV, US Manga Corp, Maiden Japan, Animazing, AnimEigo, Eastern Star, Kiseki Films...

Okay, that's enough of that.  There's anime to be rambled about, and it's a particularly good batch this time around, especially about the self-inflicted misery of the last entry.  For this special anniversary post, we have: Doomed Megalopolis, Slayers Gorgeous, Bubblegum Crisis and Five Star Stories...

Doomed Megalopolis, 1991, Kasuhiko Katayama

Wikipedia suggests that Doomed Megalopolis was greenlit on the back of the success of the - on the face of it, somewhat similar - Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend.  Given the production times involved in anime, and in particular in creating something as mammoth as the four part, nearly three hour Doomed Megalopolis, this strikes me as unlikely.  Nevertheless, it's perfectly possible that I'm just deluding myself, given how much I loathe Urotsukidoji.

For Doomed Megalopolis, which is very much in the same "demonic forces assault Tokyo" vein, is nevertheless a more appealing proposition right across the board.  That's not to say there are no similarities, and the presence of sexual violence as a plot point is the one I'd most wish we could have avoided - but, even there, Megalopolis is operating on a different level.  My biggest complaint with Urotsukidoji was that it had no notion that women were feeling, suffering beings, or that rape was a traumatic event; Doomed Megalopolis builds a considerable portion of its plot around those facts.

I don't offer this as a defense as such - what use, really, is there in me trying to defend a twenty-five year old work of Japanese horror animation? - but merely to illustrate that it's up to an altogether different game than its trashier, nastier counterparts.  It has an actual plot, based around the first third of the mammoth bestseller Teito Monogatari, a supernatural epic spanning a fictionalized history of Tokyo in the twentieth century; it has real characters behaving in at least vaguely believable fashion.  But most importantly, I think, it has goals beyond mere shock value: though certainly bloody and unpleasant, it's also in places unsettling, surreal, and, at its finest, genuinely disturbing.  It functions, in other words, as real horror - and to a greater extent even, as real dark fantasy - rather than as a compendium of bared breasts and blood for adolescent boys to coo over.

Though I can't quite reconcile the information on IMDB and Wikipedia (and am more frustrated than ever that I could only find the dubbed edition rather than the later special edition with actual extras) I suspect that the driving force behind all this unusual quality was Rintaro, of Metropolis and Galaxy Express 999 fame, who appears to have been something between director and producer on the project.  But whoever was responsible, the direction is lavish and eye-catching, and the animation, where it counts, is on a par with almost anything from the period.

Doomed Megalopolis, in short, deserved to be a classic of its day, rather more so than many a similar release.  It's bold, sophisticated stuff told by people who actually care about the story their telling, a lavish fantasy epic that even now feels surprisingly fresh, while at the same time never quite managing to hide how influential it's been.  It's far from easy to track down, but that's not to say you shouldn't try; while what it does isn't exactly my favourite thing, when it's done this well I find it awfully hard to complain.

Slayers Gorgeous, 1998, Hiroshi Watanabe

Ah, here we are at the point where the Slayers franchise officially ran out of sensible subtitles.  But any suspicions that we've slid even further down the cash-in pole since the merely okay Slayers Great are quickly put to rest.  For a start we're back in a cinematic aspect ratio (1.85:1, if my eyes don't deceive me) which immediately makes things feel more like a proper film and less like a TV episode that doesn't know when to stop.   And, even without that, the opening scene of Slayers Gorgeous is pretty damn great, in all the ways the rest of the film will go on to be pretty damn great: it gets the balance of comedy and action that's the foundation of the franchise as close to spot on as you could hope.  Right from the start, there are some strong gags, but it's the telling that really shines.

I've said before, but the basis for much, if not all, Slayers humour seems to involve taking a character or situation extremely seriously for just long enough to sucker you in and then revealing their essential ridiculousness at the last possible moment.  And this is something that Slayers Gorgeous does very well indeed, in a plot that sees our two roving sorceresses drawn into a conflict between a king and his daughter, which just happens to also involve a fair number of dragons.  Even on the basis of only three preceding films, the individual elements are wholly familiar - especially when Lena and Naga end up on opposing sides - but, unlike Slayers Great, that never becomes a problem, perhaps because the characters themselves are so keen to draw attention to the fact.

Elsewhere, the technical values are probably a step up from Great, though this is as variable as these movies have been: the general level is just fine, there are a couple of absolutely splendid action sequences towards the end, but there are also some noticeable bits of budget-skimping and animation recycling.  Both Lina and Naga have had some slight but noticeable redesigns, which after consideration I decided I preferred.  And, on reflection, I feel the same way about the third act climax, which comes out of nowhere and seems terribly serious for a while until it suddenly doesn't: if it's disconcerting in the moment, it's certainly in the Slayers spirit.  On which note, I'll say that I only have one more of these to go and it's a half hour spin-off from the Slayers TRY series, released in 2001, which means that from my point of view this is kind of the last of these Slayers movies.  I'm going to miss these things...

Bubblegum Crisis, 1987 - 1991, dir's: Katsuhito Akiyama, Yasunori Ide, Ken'ichi Yatagai, Hiroki Hayashi, Masami Ōbari, Fumihiko Takayama, Hiroaki Gōda

If there's one truism about nineties anime, it's that seminal isn't the same thing as good, so it's always a relief to come across a seminal show that's actually entertaining in its own right.  Such is Bubblegum Crisis, an eight part OVA series so significant in the development of the medium that a friend saw fit to import me the box set from the US just to plug one of the last big gaps in my knowledge.

And yes, I certainly see how Bubblegum Crisis was a crucial missing piece: I called Cyber City Oedo 808 the urtext for nineties sci-fi anime, but now I think maybe that title belongs right here, with a show that could not possibly be more of its time if it tried.  In theory, this should make it terrible: the pilfering is beyond blatant, to the point where spotting the references to Blade Runner would make for a compelling, if fatal, drinking game.  In practice, though, it's kind of amazing, like having all your fondest sci-fi memories from the back end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties blasted back at you, dialed up to eleven.  I mean, there's a point in the first episode where one of our heroes, the Knight Sabers - read, all-girl Power Rangers - rides her cool motorbike off a shattered freeway and it turns into a suit of powered armour, even though she's already wearing powered armour because that's the whole point of the show.  That's the first moment where you can either throw your hands up in disbelief or just admit that, yeah, that was pretty cool - but it certainly won't be the last.

You know what?  The latter reaction is definitely the right one.  Because Bubblegum Crisis is immense fun once you tune into its wavelength.  It may also be the perfect meeting place between Eastern and Western cyberpunk.  The episode where it just flat-out remakes Blade Runner and the result ends up being not much at all like Blade Runner is surely the perfect example.  And to that you can add some top notch production values.  The animation idles at good, but the action sequences are really splendid, never more so than when the Knight Sabers are on screen.  The character designs, from Gunsmith Cats creator Kenichi Sonada, haven't aged too well, but those suits are things of beauty when you see them in motion, and the show never lets you forget just how neat they look.  Also, the music is pretty splendid, at least if you have any sympathy at all for the wonder that is late-eighties Japanese hair rock.

If there's one obvious failing, it's that the show feels unfinished: these eight episodes tie together hardly at all, most being either standalone or two-parters, but there's a definite sense of a wider arc with no culmination.  Some of that would be provided in the Bubblegum Crash OVA and more in the follow-up series, Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, but for our present purposes that's not terribly helpful.  However, nor is it as big a problem as it might be: this is one of those universes that's perfectly pleasurable to drop into without expecting some grand resolution.  And in fact, that's really what makes Bubblegum Crisis, even in an age when it feels terrifically dated and even a little campy: it's such a thing unto itself, and that thing is so fun and likable and cool that's it's hard not to be sucked in.

Five Star Stories, 1989, dir: Kazuo Yamazaki

As a thought experiment, try to imagine a cut of David Lynch's adaptation of Dune that ran to sixty-six minutes, but retained precisely all of its plot.  Is your head aching?  Then congratulations, you've accurately simulated the experience of watching Five Star Stories, a film that contains more material in its brief voice-over introduction and epilogue than in its running time and still manages to cram in a ton of narrative, or at least of world-building and mythologizing that fulfill largely the same function, while at the same time never gaining a great deal of forward momentum.

But there we have all the criticizing I'm willing to give, for Five Star Stories is terrifically strange, and I do like me some terrifically strange nineties anime, even when that strangeness keeps it from being entirely successful.  And, by damn, what Five Star Stories does well it does terrifically well: its universe, part sci-fi on a huge scale and part European middle ages, is a deeply involved place, and its plot absolutely reflects that.  In its barest terms, we have something like this: giant robots called (sic) Mortar headds require suspiciously female-looking androids called Fatimas to function, but the creator of the Fatimas has slipped a fresh ingredient into his latest batch, with the result that the robot about to be presented to the galaxy in a weird kind-of auction has emotions and an agenda all of her own.  Meanwhile, our hero, the epicene Sopp, is dithering about on the sidelines, and it's fairly obvious that, whatever his motives are, they don't line up with those of the local tyrant, the villainous, gluttonous Lord Juba.

It doesn't take much research to release that the central problem here is that what we have is an adaptation of only the first volume of a much longer Manga, a phenomenon so common in anime from this period that it seems barely worth commenting on.  But, as much as it's frustrating, it's also kind of endearing: there's a real sense of being plonked in the middle of a huge, mythic story, and at the end the fact that the resolution basically adds up to "and then things really started happening" is okay, in the same way that it's okay to dip into classical mythology and not find out where every character would end up.  In fact, that's probably as good a comparison as there could be, and one Five Star Stories courts openly: after all, the three Fatimas are named after the three fates.

All of this makes emotional sense in the context of medieval Europe and a degree of sci-fi sense in the context of a convoluted, planets-spanning empire, but the two line up in some puzzling ways.  The result feels like nothing else I've come across, though again, Dune isn't an inappropriate comparison.  For that matter, while its plot may not altogether land - every moment of conflict could be easily avoided if Sopp acted even a little differently - it accomplishes more on the way down that many a less ambitious work has dared dream of.  This is grand space opera stuff, concentrated to almost comical extremes and yet somehow taking the time to let its story play out organically.  How the hell any of that works I have no idea, yet it sort of does, and even when it doesn't it's pretty thrilling.

Meanwhile, everything looks marvelous, with odd moments that I'd count among the finest I've ever encountered in hand drawn animation.  I'm never going to be a fan of Nobuteru Yûki's pointy-chinned character designs, but at least they're well suited to a universe where practically everyone is effete or waifish or both, and anyway the mecha designs are so exemplary that I can't bring myself to care too much.  The score, too, is particularly grand and lovely.  I haven't been able to establish whether Five Star Stories was a theatrical release, but it would certainly have warranted one.

And finally, having devoted a great many words to it, I must admit that I've been largely wasting your time, because good luck finding Five Star Stories anywhere.  I bought it in a Korean edition, which is great - as they tend to be - and wasn't particularly expensive.  But I'm coming to suspect that I'm more committed to this nineties anime thing than most people!  Still, if you should ever stumble over a cheap copy then it's well worth a look: a work of bold quirks that feels distinctive not just by the standards of its time and medium.


Just yesterday I was explaining to a friend how I've nearly exhausted this whole nineties anime thing, having bought just about everything from the period that was released in the UK and much that wasn't.  Then today I found a website streaming a ton of out of print releases, many of which I've never so much as heard of.  And the to-watch shelf is still heaving, and by the time I get through all that, most likely I'll have stumbled over something else.  Oh, and there's still the post reviewing the true classics of nineties anime that I've been planning practically since I began.

All of which is to say, don't expect this series to end any time soon.  It looks increasingly likely that the day I stop reviewing nineties anime is the day they pry the keyboard from my cold, dead fingers...

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18, Part 19]

Monday, 6 February 2017

Time Alone Press, or, How to Spot the Time Wasters

 "How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?"

John McClane, Die Hard 2: Die Harder

I wrote a post here, not much over a year ago, about the dreadful experiences I had with an outfit by the name of Eldritch Press, who accepted my story Br(other) and then proceeded to muck me around for a very long time indeed, before finally admitting that they wouldn't be publishing my work - and had no intention of paying me a single cent for the months in which they'd tied up the rights while purposefully obfuscating the fact that they knew damn well the book would likely never happen.

What a rubbish experience that was!  And thank goodness these things happen almost never!  I mean, the odds of then selling that same story to another supposedly pro-rate anthology, and the editors again going suspiciously silent for months on end, with the occasional burst of self-aggrandizing nonsense, only to finally admit - in a narcissistic e-mail that suggested they were largely blind to the harm they'd done - that said anthology wouldn't be happening, while ignoring any suggestion that they might compensate writers, are, what?  One in a zillion?

Well, in this case they were precisely one in one, since that's just what happened with Time Alone Press, and their now defunct Let Us In anthology.

Now, my first thought was that there's nothing much you can do in these instances except name and shame: to wit, given that all traces of Time Alone have vanished, all I can say is that, if you should ever come across the improbably-monickered Karl Hexean Sumner, you'd do well to have your lying cat handy.  But then I realised that, since I got a suspicious vibe off of this guy pretty much right from the off, here was a useful opportunity to share some thoughts on how to spot the time wasters early.  And while this probably won't materially help anyone, since there's not a great deal you can do in these situations except hope for the best, at least it might save a little heartbreak when the letdowns finally come.

You Have To Think Anyway, So Why Not Think Big?
Ambition is great, right?  Everyone loves ambition.  Only, ambitious people tend to be ambitious in all directions at once, and hard-working people tend to leave no stones unturned in their pursuit of excellence, and ... look ... if a publisher is espousing their wildly optimistic plans but not doing a whole lot of anything that you can see then maybe they're the sorts of people that are better at daydreaming than doing.  For Time Alone that meant one anthology that turned into a three volume series that turned into a three volume series plus a magazine that turned into a whole boatload of nothing.
Show Me the Money
This one can actually double as a general life lesson: if someone is promising you money then take a moment to wonder where that money might be coming from.  I mean, I'm not saying you should start investigating their investments or anything, but - well, look, we're using Time Alone as an example, aren't we?  Time Alone had publicly promised to publish three anthologies of short fiction, to a total of some sixty or so stories, meaning an up-front investment of somewhere around the fifteen thousand dollar mark.  And yet their website looked like they persuaded a toddler to make it on the promise of a trip to the park.  The point being: does the amount you're being promised align with the sort of money the publisher is spending elsewhere?  Or is there a general air that their funding plans involve a significant lottery win?
It's. Oh. So Quiet
Short story publishing is, admittedly, not a business that requires constant communication; sometimes months may pass in which you'll hear nothing, especially if a market buys well in advance.  Still, there are certain definite circumstances where silence becomes suspicious.  Having had an acceptance, have you had a contract?  Having had a contract, have you had payment?  If the answer's no on either front and more than a month has gone by then something's likely amiss.  And when that gets to Time Alone levels, with websites and Facebook pages left for weeks on end without updates, it's safe to assume that something's going majorly wrong behind the scenes.
What Does God Need With a Starship?
Following on from all the earlier points: real publishers have plans about how they're going to achieve their goals.  That may mean Kickstarters or subscriber programs or being millionaires from the off, but there should generally be at least some sense of how those goals will become ends.  If a publisher's business plan appears to be along the lines of "make a book and then poof! magic, and also there will be unicorns" then there's a reasonable chance that they do not, in fact, know what they're doing.  By the same measure, you might want to look and see if they've previously published any books, and if so, how well they've managed them.  Lots of pending projects and few or no actual projects are another good warning sign, as are half-built websites staying half-built for months on end.
It's Not You, It's Me
Good publishers are enthusiastic about publishing.  Holy crap, that sounds so obvious when you say it like that!  And those good publishers tend to devote their energies to talking about their writers, their writers' stories, their projects, rather than - you know - themselves.  If every e-mail you get, and every Facebook post, and everything on the website, screams of a publisher that's terribly excited about their own existence and at best mildly interested in the writers they should be promoting then that right there is another flashing red light.
Needless to say, none of these warning signs mean a great deal in isolation; no-one's perfect, after all.  It's when you see two or three of them together that you should start readying for bad news - and when you see all five then you should assume that it's pretty much guaranteed.

And, hey, on a concluding note - if anyone wants to buy a horror story of just under 6000 words that is very clearly cursed then do please let me know.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 19

It's funny the tricks the human mind can play on itself.  Somewhere in the weeks before Christmas, I started pining for some really bad nineties anime, having come to the conclusion that I'd been having way too good a run.  This was, of course, madness, as anyone who chooses to consider some of the dross I suffered through in the earlier entries will testify.  Still, the thought stuck, and at around the same time I began thinking that I really should finish off Manga's mostly awful Collection series just because of - you know - being a completionist or whatever.  Again, despite the fact that the handful I had left where things I'd purposefully ignored because they sounded utterly awful.

The moral?  I'm basically an idiot.  And, thanks in large part to my idiocy, this time through we have Psychic Wars, Slayers Great, Golgo 13: Queen Bee and Project A-Ko...

Project A-Ko, 1986, Katsuhiko Nishijima

I understand that Project A-Ko is regarded as something of a classic, as one of the first releases to get serious attention in the West.  And, yeah, I can sort of understand that.  Like, you're trying to break a thoroughly Japanese mode of animation into a market that's only ever experienced it in the form of (often heavily bastardized) children's cartoons, so you go for a movie about super-powered schoolgirls that's basically a parody of the wider world of eighties anime?  Sure, that's ... well, it's definitely a choice that someone, somewhere, might make.

Perhaps the point here is not to focus on the plot - in which teenager A-Ko protects her horribly annoying best friend C-Ko from B-Ko, a super-villainous rival for her affections, until aliens invade and make all of their petty squabbles seem suddenly less important - and concentrate instead on the production values and the fact that at the time no one really had the first idea what would or wouldn't sell in American (and, to a lesser degree, European) markets.  And really, though Project A-Ko is undoubtedly a weird choice, it's not a bad one.  Its comic jabs are aimed widely enough to transcend cultural barriers - Transformers gets a laugh-out-loud skewering and you could read the whole thing as a send-up of Superman if you felt so inclined - and, maybe more to the point, the production values are pretty damn great.  There were no end of moments in Project A-Ko that reminded me of why I love hand drawn animation, and a couple that were damn near breathtaking, and the available DVD release capitalizes on those virtues greatly, with an excellent digitally restored print.  Not to mention that the dub is about good enough to justify the lack of subtitles, and the effort put into dubbing the film's three (rather marvelous, if indescribably eighties J-pop) songs pays dividends.

Project A-Ko, then, is a weird old thing.  Put it up against, say, Akira, which would land a mere two years later, and its classic status is somewhat bewildering.  On the other hand, it's aged pretty damn well, and manages precisely the things you'd hope a bit of comedic sci-fi would do: in fact most of its jokes have suffered hardly at all for the passages of three decades.  At any rate, I enjoyed it plenty and I've no doubt I'll be watching it again.  In the end, perhaps that's the most you can reasonably expect from a thirty year old classic that gained its status largely by having no competition.

Psychic Wars, 1991, dir: Tetsuo Imazawa

Psychic Wars is widely considered to be among the very worst of Manga's reliably lousy Collection range - which is to say, the worst of the worst when it comes to 90's anime - and contrarian that I am, I confess that raised my hopes a little.  After all, I've enjoyed things like Dark Myth and Landlock that are similarly reviled.  But no, this time around, the consensus is bang on the money.  Psychic Wars is dreadful.

What's more, it's dreadful in just about every meaningful way.  And for once, most of those don't have a great deal to do with Manga's shonky treatment of the material.  Oh, don't get me wrong, the dub is abysmal, possibly the worst Manga ever put their penny-scrimping minds to; the leads sound catatonically bored in a way non-actors could never hope to achieve.  And there are the usual idiocies elsewhere, like the typos on the packaging ... I don't think a single one of these releases lacks an obvious typo in its back cover description.  Though admittedly this is the only one I've spotted where they flat-out lie about the running time, rounding up dramatically from fifty-one minutes to sixty.

Frankly, that blatant fibbing is a mercy.  Ten minutes less of Psychic Wars is ten minutes not spent watching a singularly personality-devoid hero stabbing demons that look like orcs imagined and drawn by a twelve year old, or flirting with his similarly charmless girlfriend; it's ten minutes that don't require an unreasonable amount of concentration to unravel a plot that doesn't reward even the slightest portion of that effort, but needs it nonetheless thanks to incoherent editing.  It's ten minutes not spent gaping at weightless character designs floating across generic backgrounds at a teeth-grindingly low frame rate.  Frankly, if you spent those ten minutes staring at a blank TV then they'd be infinitely more rewarded.

At this point, I sort of wish I could come up with some positives, just to feel like I'd written something approaching a balanced review.  But no, there are none.  At its best, as with the inoffensive score, Psychic Wars rises to the giddy heights of wholly generic.  There are a couple of scenes where director Imazawa tries something vaguely visually interesting, but all those achieve is to draw more attention to how limp the film is everywhere else.  It really is awful, and if the Collection range has worse to offer then I'm yet to see it, though the possibility fills me with dread.

Golgo 13: Queen Bee, 1998, dir: Osamu Dezaki

I'm tempted to declare Golgo 13: Queen Bee the nadir of this whole experiment in nineties anime, and the only thing holding me back even slightly is that I sat through Legend of the Overfiend.  But, you know, Overfiend at least picked up in a small way towards its end.  And while I hoped Queen Bee might follow suit, on the back of some late game revelations and character developments that were at least faintly interesting, the material quickly retrenched into an ending every bit as foul-hearted, tiresome and misogynistic as what had come before.  So, if only for uniformity of terribleness, I think maybe this one edges it.

Plot-wise, a fair portion of what you'd need to know is there in the title: Golgo 13 is a master assassin* hired by a corrupt politician to take down Queen Bee, the mercenary and drug dealer who also happens to want said politician dead.  Meanwhile, Queen Bee is busily sleeping with every man she can lay her sweaty hands on - Golgo 13 included - to the point where I'm wracking my brains to think of a male member of the cast whose bones she doesn't jump at some point.  I have a dreadful feeling that the writer viewed this as some sort of affirmative, feminist portrayal; I refuse to say the same for the revelation that Queen Bee has been popping out a veritable army of children.

(This, by the way, has strangely had no effect on her figure, which very much represents how a man who'd never met a woman but who'd read a boatload of porn would represent the female form.  Nor has being pregnant pretty much constantly throughout her adult life - she's stated as 29 and has, like, a dozen kids - inhibited her ability to lead a gang of South American drug-dealing mercenary freedom fighters.**)

I don't know, maybe there are people out there who genuinely believe that the best way to portray a strong female character is to show her incessantly either having sex or killing people, and to give her a busload of children because, hey, having children is a thing women do, right?  Maybe, but I do hope not.  And even then, even then, Queen Bee is not the worst thing about her semi-titular movie.  Heck, compared with Golgo 13 himself, she's downright realistic and nuanced.  And compared to the rest of the cast, the two of them are like something out of Tolstoy.  In fact, if I had to single out a single, simple problem with this horrid mess then there it is: we haven't a single character to sympathize with.  Golgo 13 makes for a hateful protagonist, and that more or less leaves us with Queen Bee, but as written she's so weird and broken that it's impossible to find anything she does or says sympathetic.  It's not hard to conceive of a version of this character being interesting, but that would call for vastly less troubling notions of female behaviour than are on display here.

Thus I can imagine no take on this story that wouldn't be at least a little bit awful.  But the presence of Osamu Dezaki at the helm pushes the project from mere ugly mediocrity to a level of terrible that's nearly hypnotic.  Based solely on this and Black Jack, I'm happy to call Dezaki one of the worst directors to work in the medium of Japanese animation, and certainly he's my personal least favourite.  The man is a master of misapplied style, and nearly every decision he makes is clearly, wildly wrong; he has an abiding taste for flamboyant gestures and glaringly apparent effects and always they represent the most egregious mistakes imaginable.  Some of these - the freezing on a pastel-shaded version of a still frame, for example - he was already abusing in Black Jack. Others, like the incessant habit of repeating a few frames of animation three times, often while zooming in, are new additions to his arsenal.  Weirdest, and the only one that even flirts with success, is a variation on those freeze frames, except the character's face suddenly resembles a cadaver- because, you know, death and murder and all that.  It's atrociously heavy-handed, but at least it's interesting.  At any rate, this is the only anime I've watched that gave me motion sickness, such is Dezaki's commitment to wacky stylistic decisions and weird angles over actually telling his rotten little story.

Looking back, I see that, of all these reviews, I've devoted the most time by far to something I absolutely hated.  But then, perhaps that's as it should be.  Golgo 13: Queen Bee is poisonous crap, and if anything I've written here persuades even one person to avoid it then I consider this entire series of posts worthwhile.

Slayers Great, 1997, dir: Hiroshi Watanabe

Let's start with the obvious: Slayers Great, the third Slayers movie, is another step down in terms of production values - a fact given away immediately by the switch to a TV standard 4:3 ratio over the cinematic ratios of the first two entries.  But whereas a touch less in the way of ambition worked wonders for Slayers Return, here it means only that we're firmly in the realms of the cheaper sort of film-length spin-off - the kind that doesn't push beyond existing limits thanks to a previously unimaginable budget but that seems like an episode going on for twice as long as it really can justify.

That's harsh, maybe, but also not unfair.  There's nothing in the plot - which finds Lina and Naga stranded in a village whose economy is devoted to the making of golems and begins building fairly rapidly towards an inevitable showdown between golem versions of our two heroines - that wouldn't have worked just fine in twenty or so minutes.  And the extra forty don't add a tremendous amount, either; like I said, we know pretty quickly where this is leading, and though there are plenty of fun scenes along the way, they're ultimately just bumps on an overly familiar road.  Of course, this being Slayers, the climatic battle, once it arrives, is pretty good fun, and all the funniest moments are clustered in that third act.  It still manages to go on a little too long, but that's a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things; what amounts to a giant robot scrap between two of anime's best fantasy heroines is never going to run the risk of growing altogether dull.

Slayers Great represents a definite low point for the movies so far then, on just about every level; I'm not certain that the vocal performances weren't even less enthusiastic this time around, and certainly it's a marked step down in terms of animation and ambition.  Nevertheless, that's not to say I didn't enjoy it.  Certainly I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to find this one on DVD, but nor would I say skip over it if you're working through the collection.  It's not an hour of your life you'll regret, just one that won't prove terribly memorable.


Well, Project A-Ko was fun.  Perhaps rather weak sauce as classics go, but definitely fun.

But then Golgo 13: Queen Bee was horrible beyond reason, and Psychic Wars was utterly worthless as entertainment, and Slayers Great was mostly kind of okay, so I think it's safe to say that this entry wasn't any kind of a win.

Next time, then: less self-flagellation.  Though I do have one more Collection release to get through, and it promises to be every shade of awful, so perhaps not no self-flagellation at all.

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17, Part 18, Part 20]

* Though based on his bizarrely incompetent performance here, I feel no shame in declaring that I'm more of a master assassin that Golgo 13 is.  And I'm a pacifist.

** Here I'm hedging my bets: the organisation that Queen Bee works for never really makes a lick of sense and if I was supposed to know why they were doing the things they were doing then I obviously wasn't paying half enough attention.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Film Ramble: Top Ten Anime Shows Watched in 2016

Okay, I realise I'm getting to this so desperately late that it's barely worth posting; in retrospect doing not one but two year's best top ten articles was a wildly bad idea, and one I'm sure I'll be discontinuing in future.  Or perhaps I could just learn how to write about things briefly, that would probably work too.

Last year saw a combination of seeking out new anime and catching up on a few of the acknowledged classics I've missed, and the results were pretty great, all told - certainly more successful than they'd have been had I focused on one or the other.  There are tons of classics out there, and anime is in a pretty good place at the moment, not to mention more available than ever.
(Though, the story of the blood, sweat and tears I had to shed to find a copy of my number one show for a reasonable price could fill this post all by itself, so there's still plenty of room for progress!)

At any rate, here are my ten favourite anime shows watched in the whole of 2016:

10) Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions

It's easy to fall into the trap of favoring older anime over newer anime, just as it is to fall into the trap of favoring older anything over newer anything - and I suppose that in a sense that's what I'm doing by placing a show I adored in such a lowly spot.  That's the problem with watching a lot of absolute classics, I suppose; and there's also the fact that it's been months since I watched Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions, and though I remember I adored it, I can't remember exactly why.  It certainly had something to do with how it made me laugh out loud, before sucking me in by degrees into genuinely caring about two deeply flawed but adorable characters, before punching my heart right out of my chest.  And why is it only anime that can do that?  Suckering you in with comedy until it has you right where it wants you and then laying on the emotional hurt?  At any rate, Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions finds that perfect balance between romantic and comedy that eludes so much Western entertainment, just as its skewering of geek culture is hilariously cruel and affectionate in exactly the right blend.

9) Chaika the Coffin Princess

And here we are again, another recent show - by my current favourites, Studio Bones - and another thirteen episode-er, which seems to be about the perfect length for novel, out-of-left-field shows these days.  Of everything here, Chaika the Coffin Princess is the only show I've watched where I felt the need to track down the Manga, and if that's not a recommendation then I don't know what is.  It's a weird, giddy fantasy with a fabulous premise, which starts with the daughter of a defeated evil lord dragging around a coffin and hunting down his dismembered body parts and just gets odder from there.  It has splendid lead characters and a dark sense of humour that still manages to be laugh-out-loud funny; oh, and the action sequences are rather good too.  Really, this is just about everything I want from a fantasy TV show, and it's immensely frustrating that there's no legal way to see the concluding season in the UK.

8) Knights of Sidonia

Ah, Knights of Sidonia, how many and copious are your flaws - that never-not-quite-wooden CG animation for a start! - and how distrustful I was of you at first, and how much I fell in love with you the more you went off the rails, until by the time one of your recurring cast was a cute-voiced alien tentacle with a face like a cat's bum I was wholly sold.  You might come for the harder-than-usual sci-fi plot, and, for example, the fact that for once we have a giant craft moving in space that behaves something like how a giant craft moving in space might behave, with all the problems of stopping and turning that might well entail.  But if you stay, it'll likely be for the show's distinctiveness and steadily increasing eccentricity, perhaps best exemplified by the gloriously mad opening theme tunes.  Think that combining Japanese dance pop and military marches is a remotely sensible idea?  Then you might just have a lot of fun with Knights of Sidonia.

7) Eureka Seven

From the aforementioned Studio Bones, creators of last year's favourite Xam'd, and considered one of the high points of that studio's landmark-studded output, I had high hopes for Eureka Seven.  And, in fairness, most of them were met: the production values are top notch, the music is among the best in any show I've comes across, and over the course of fifty episodes, the show tells a one-of-a-kind romance unlike anything in anime or elsewhere: one that feels genuine throughout its many highs and lows, and especially in those moments when you really just want to bash our young lovers' heads together.  Eureka Seven is that rare work that tries, with genuine imagination, to take an established trope - in this case, the perennial anime favourite of giant robots - and turn it into something fresh and new-feeling, partly by pillaging from surf culture and partly by building a meaningful sci-fi universe from the ground up.  There aren't many really epic science fiction stories, in anime or elsewhere, with this kind of breadth and depth - and with that in mind, the fact that it maybe doesn't contain quite enough story for its prodigious running time is an easily ignored flaw.

6) Ah! My Goddess

I think probably my favourite anime franchise of all time?  Yeah, why not.  I don't know that I've ever come across anything so fundamentally sweet-natured and basically likable as Ah! My Goddess at its best.  Spend much time in the company of well-meaning nerd Keiichi and the goddess, Belldandy, who he inadvertently summons to be his live-in girlfriend, and you find yourself having a little more faith in human nature almost by osmosis.  Their relationship, and the fact that they're both legitimately nice people, is the absolute heart of the show.  Then again, perhaps the reason that it works so well is the wicked sense of humour playing around that centre: have any two young lovers been put through quite so many (and such outrageous) ordeals?  Ah! My Goddess really finds it feet with the addition of Belldandy's marvelous sisters, immature tech genius Skuld, who'll do anything to keep Keiichi and Belldandy apart, and older Urd, who'll do anything to get their relationship past first base.

5) Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

There was a phase, and quite a lengthy phase too, where I was not only ready to call Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood the best anime show I'd seen this year but the best anime show I'd seen ever.  That lasted all the way through its practically flawless first act, and well into its flawed but possibly more interesting second act, and it was only when I realised that the entire last third was going to be only verrrrrrry long fight that my interest began to flag a touch.  Still, what a fight!  And what a perfect first third!  And what consistently spectacular animation!  Even if it didn't quite live up to its potential - and maybe nothing could have - this is still exactly how you go about doing a series of such length, with such fluid handling of multiple arcs and an absolutely gigantic cast of characters, practically all engaging enough to carry their own shows, that the result is hard to believe even as you're experiencing it.

4) Cowboy Bebop

It breaks my heart to rank Cowboy Bebop this low, and I can't shake the feeling that had I just watched it then maybe the show would be appearing much higher, for Bebop is without doubt one of the masterpieces of serialized animation: a show that favours fantastic writing, exquisite characterization and its own idiosyncratic and heightened brand of style, while also delivering consistently great animation.  The thing that makes Bebop truly stand out, however, is that it consists almost entirely of one-and-done episodes.  It's not a weakness, by any means, especially when some of those episodes are among the most perfectly formed short stories you'll ever encounter; but if Cowboy Bebop has one failing, its that what arc plot there is feels malnourished by comparison.  The trick, then, is to go in knowing that's not what you're here for: watch, instead, for the characters, for the wit, for the sense of cool that drips from every facet of the design and finds its peak in Yôko Kanno superlative score.  After all, Cowboy Bebop is a legend for a reason, and one that still feels fresh nearly two decades on.

3) Puella Magi Madoka Magica

A show that's already become legendary and has already proven influential, though it's a little tricky to spell out to non-anime watchers just why: explaining that something is a savage subversion of magical girl tropes is hardly going to snare the attention of your average person on the street.  And, though it's absolutely true that Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a perfect genre take-down, making the most innocent cliches terrifying, you could have no knowledge whatsoever of Sailor Moon and its ilk and still recognize this for a work of genius: the way the plot peels away its concept to display darker and darker layers without ever betraying its central logic should certainly do it, and if not then there's always the eye-grabbing incorporation of mixed media into traditional anime art, which looks both amazing and unlike anything out there.  In the end (and like another, older show that pops up below, and also gained initial fame for skewering a beloved sub-genre) Puella Magi Madoka Magica goes so much further than its contemporaries: it's fine work in its own right, and the fact that magical girl anime will forever after be a little bit petrifying is the icing on an already splendid cake.

2) Fate/Zero

Here's my advice: if you see the names Type-Moon and UFOTable together on something then watch that thing at your earliest opportunity, because it's likely to be terrific - but particularly if you're a fan of highly involved fantasy with a heavy side order of horror, brought to life with some of the most vivid, detailed animation you're ever likely to set eyes upon.  Amid their collaborations, however, Fate/Zero is a pretty great place to start, if only for its irresistible premise, which finds modern-day mages battling with the aid of summoned mythic heroes in an epic, deadly battle royale, with the holy grail as the prize and no end of betrayals and bloody secrets to be revealed before the end.  Packed with scenes so striking that I still remember them clearly months later, Fate/Zero is an epic piece of dark fantasy, and one that should appeal to just about anyone with a sympathy for the subgenre.

1) Neon Genesis Evangelion

There are people out there who consider Neon Genesis Evangelion to be grossly overrated, and would argue that the facts that its creators ran out of money well before the end and that mastermind Hideaki Anno was pretty clearly just working out his own deep depression through the medium of a giant robot show somehow mean that it can't be one of the absolute masterworks of serialized storytelling of the last fifty years.  I'd like to say that those people are gravely wrong - I mean, they are - but I can also just about see that Neon Genesis Evangelion isn't for everyone.  If, for instance, you don't want to be actively traumatized by your entertainment, then maybe it's not for you.  And if you'd prefer the climatic battle of your giant robot show to occur on screen, rather than, say, watching the protagonist's mental collapse from the inside, then again, you might do better to look elsewhere.  For everyone else, though, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a uniquely provocative slice of anime unlike anything before or since, and something you owe it to yourself to watch if you care at all about the medium, world cinema, original sci-fi or the right of crazy people to make mind-boggling works of art.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Ready For the New Term?

Mike and I basically knew from the beginning that we'd want to return to the world of The Black River Chronicles.  I mean, you don't call a book Level One unless you're at least a little bit hopeful that there'll be a level two, a level three, and so on, do you?  And even as we were writing the first book, our thoughts kept straying to how we wanted these characters to grow.  What happens to Durren now that his secret's at least partially out?  Just what is Tia hiding?  And will Arein ever stop naming everything she meets after her childhood pets?  In the same way, there are so many parts of this world yet to visit: really, we've only scratched the surface.

But for any of that to happen, The Black River Chronicles needed readers - at least enough of them that pressing ahead wouldn't be an insane decision, but ideally a significant number of people who reached the end of Level One and wanted to hang out with Durren and the gang again just as badly as the two of us did.  And, as I've learned the hard way before now, there are no guarantees in publishing.  Just because we felt that we had something fresh and fun and exciting, didn't mean anyone else would.

With that in mind: a huge thank you to everyone who's embraced this first book, it means the world to us both.  Thanks to everyone who's taken the time to spread the word and everyone who's gone onto Amazon and Goodreads to throw goodwill our way.  And make that an especially big thank you because now I get to announce that the response has been strong enough to make a second book not only feasible but sensible.  As of the start of this month, the scary paperwork side of things has all been sorted, and as of right now synopses have been discussed, and very soon the real donkey work will begin.  All of which is to say, expect to see a new Black River Chronicles chronicle before the year is out.

And, you know, expect it to be awesome.  I won't go into details yet, for obvious reasons!  But suffice to say that we'll be seeing new challenges, new places and new characters, and that getting to level three from level two is substantially more difficult than from level two to level one, especially when - but no, it's definitely too early for spoilers!  For the moment, let's just say this: I'm thrilled about the story that Mike and I are planning, it feels like a real advance on the foundations we've built, and if you liked Level One even a little bit, I think you're going to love this one.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2016

I can say nothing more about the state of genre filmmaking in 2016 than that I really didn't think I'd manage to come up with ten films for this list until December rolled around.  But then, didn't I say something similar last year?  So perhaps the problem is just that I've become a miserable sod with too-high standards for fantasy and science-fiction movies.

Yeah.  Perhaps that's it.

Certainly I'm at a loss to explain the affection for some of the films showing up on similar lists I've seen.  As far as I'm concerned, Tale of Tales should have been called Tale of Rambling Anecdotes That Don't Remotely Tie Up or Go Anywhere.  And 10 Cloverfield Lane?  The moderately amusing thriller that relied for its plot development on everyone doing the most ridiculous things possible at every turn, and which ended with J J Abrams copy / pasting in the third act from an entirely different script?  Then there was The Witch, a film I watched for a solid thirty minutes before I stopped laughing long enough to realise that this was actually how someone thought people spoke at any point in history ever.

Or, again, there were the things I really wanted to be great and that resolutely refused to be, like X-Men: Apocalypse, which - well, I didn't altogether hate, I guess.  Likewise, rationally, I know that Deadpool should be on here somewhere, and yet I find that I can't work up any retrospective enthusiasm whatsoever.  And then there's my cheeky number eleven spot, which is even more of a cheat since I just claimed I had trouble making my way up to ten:

(Honourary Mention) Kubo and the Two Strings

I don't know what it is, precisely, but I just don't get on with the works of Studio Laika.  I hoped Kubo and the Two Strings would be the film to buck that trend, and ... well, here it is, not in the top ten.  Kubo looked staggeringly lovely, there's no denying that; solely in terms of visual ingenuity, it's a masterpiece.  But what was all of that luscious artistry in service of?  A fetch-quest, chosen-one plot that felt like every other kid's fantasy movie, only grafted into an Eastern setting, set apart only by its thoroughgoing self-seriousness.  Hey, Kubo, I get that you're telling a story about telling stories, so maybe you could let two lines of dialogue go without reminding me?

And yet - so pretty.  Kubo basically gets a special mention for its superlative animation and its visual (if not narrative) imagination, and for the fact that as an animation nerd I couldn't rightfully leave off something so ravishing.  But, man, imagine this thing with a halfway decent script; now that would be sitting at the entirely other end of this list.

And now, without further cheating, my actual top ten...

10) High-Rise

I love Ben Wheatley so much!  And someone finally gave him a decent budget to play with!  And then he made his weakest film yet!  I'm inclined to blame this on the Ballard source material, since I increasingly suspect I don't like Ballard one bit; in fact, having watched both this and Crash last year, I know full well I don't.  Still, the fact remains that the result is something of an intermittently brilliant, frequently fascinating slog, a work of often phenomenal craft in service of a plot that seems determined never to gain any momentum, even when theoretically exciting things are being done by theoretically exciting people.  I doubt there will ever come a time when I hate, or even actively dislike, a Ben Wheatley movie, but I certainly did have a hard time staying engaged with this one, and that alone was enough to make it 2016's biggest disappointment.

9) Doctor Strange

It's a Marvel movie meets Inception!  Oh, but without the ingenious premise and plotting, and with a wholly generic three act structure in its place.  Okay, so that's unfair, there were some definite flares of ingenuity and imagination going on here: the action sequences were generally splendid, the ending was a novel, knowing twist that went against formula, and I for one really liked the fact that it refused to deliver on its trite love interest set-up and instead gave us two post-relationship characters relearning how to behave like decent human beings towards one another.  Oh, and the production design was an utter treat.  But for all that, I find it impossible to look back at Doctor Strange with much excitement.  In the end, it came and went and did not much more than it needed to, introducing a new character to the pantheon who'll no doubt be better served by better sequels.

8) Star Wars: Rogue One

Only now do I realise that the most galling thing for me about 2016's blockbusters was just how many times a director I rate highly delivered subpar work.  And what better example could there be than Star Wars: Rogue One, the third film by the miraculous Gareth Edwards?  Seriously, did everyone who raved about this see the version that Disney hadn't hacked to shreds and then stuck back together with gaffer tape?  I don't believe I've ever seen a film that wore it's re-shoots so blatantly on its sleeve; just as one example, I defy anyone to make meaningful sense of the two protagonists' character arcs.  And yet the great bits are certainly great, the supporting cast do wonders at keeping the whole business afloat, and there's an undeniable thrill in seeing a genuinely visionary director set loose in the Star Wars universe.  But if this is how these new Star Wars movies are going to work, taking talented artisans and then cutting them off at the knees, then I suspect that me and they are going to fall out awfully quickly.

7) Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them

With no real investment in the Potterverse beyond the fact that I'd enjoyed the latter movies - and particularly the latter movies directed by David Yates, a cracking visual stylist with fine taste in cinematographers - I wasn't sure how excited to get about Fantastical Beasts, which looked for all the world like Rowling returning to a watering hole she had no real interest in drinking from except for the huge bundles of money littering the shore.  So that the result was at least endearingly odd is certainly something, I suppose.  It was too long, too sluggish, not half so pretty as I'd hope a Yates-directed, Potter-related movie to be, and Rowling's script seemed to have no clue how to marry up its A and B plots.  But in its best moments it had a heck of a charming vibe, built on some appealing characters, and there's a lot to be said for a story that takes the time to build its world and cast, especially in these fallen times.  As long as Yates stays on board, I suspect these might end up doing a perfectly good job of filling the hole in my yearly film watching that those annoyingly terrific latter Potter movies left.

6) Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

The superhero movie of 2016 that everyone loved to hate, and only a madman would claim that Batman V Superman was an unqualified success, but for me it worked more often than it didn't - though, months later, I struggle to remember precisely why.  I suspect that my lack of investment in the DC universe probably helped matters, as did my mild exhaustion with Disney-Marvel's habit of sanding off the sharp edges from absolutely everything.  Snyder's movie was a weird old hurricane of a mess, like basically ever Snyder movie, but I was just ready for something so grandiose and idiosyncratic.  Honestly, I think this might be one of those films that everyone looks back on in five years time and realises they underestimated.  But if not then it still managed to be a willfully odd alternative to the increasingly suffocating Marvel formula, and to do what everyone seemed convinced couldn't be done: to usher in a new filmic Batman who feels like he might yet prove a satisfying replacement for Nolan's interpretation of the character.

5) Star Trek: Beyond

Better than Abram's two Star Trek movies was never going to be the highest of bars to leap over: frankly, having the least affection for the franchise and not just using it as an audition tape to make a Star Wars movie would have been a fine start.  And lo and behold, that's the main thing that Star Trek: Beyond gets right.  Justin Lin will probably never be the greatest of directors, and he doesn't even bring his action A game, but Beyond is eager and earnest in all the right places, and that alone felt like a breath of fresh air after the dour, preposterous work of confused fan fiction that was Into Darkness.  Beyond never achieves a great deal more than feeling like a strong episode of the original show made with an astronomical modern budget, but you know what, that'll do me.

4) Captain America: Civil War

I admit, in the first draft I rated Batman V Superman above this, and on the whole I still like it that little bit more - but there's no denying that probably has more to do with expectations than anything else.  At any rate, has a colon in a film title ever said so much?  Captain America: Civil War is two things slammed inelegantly together, a good Captain America movie and a great Avengers movie, and I would much rather have seen that equation the other way round, or maybe just had the Avengers material in its own damn film.  Still, there's no worse brand of criticism than reviewing the film you wanted rather than the film you got, and the film we got is about as spectacular as one of the increasingly overstuffed brand of Marvel ensemble movies could hope to be.  Deep, thrilling, involving and surprising, and (thank goodness!) they got Black Panther just right.  Frankly, if nothing else comes out of Civil War but a great Black Panther movie then I'll happily retroactively consider it a masterpiece for the ages.

3) Moana

I'm already curious to revisit Moana, and to reassess my opinion of the time, that it was a great Disney movie that blew any number of opportunities to be an utterly top tier Disney movie such as we'd all still be talking about a decade from now.  When it plowed its own furrow it was gloriously, spectacularly distinctive; when it didn't, it was so generic that I would swear they literally copied bits of the script out of other Disney movies.  I mean, do we ever need another protagonist to audibly doubt that they really are the chosen one and then be reassured that, no really, they are the chosen one?  Well, conceivably, but for that same dialogue exchange to occur - what, fifteen times?  It felt like fifteen times.  Also, frankly, Moana herself had an annoying tendency to be the weakest link in her own movie; did she really have to be such an anachronistically stereotypical American teenager?  But, you know, other than that, I basically loved it.  Even the songs were great, and I try very hard to hate the songs in Disney movies.

2) Midnight Special

It breaks my heart a bit that I'm not giving this the top spot, because when I found out that Jeff Nichols, director of possibly my favourite genre movie of the millennium so far, Take Shelter, had another one out, I may have peed in my pants a little.  But I think, in retrospect, that I also entered with some truly unfair expectations, and also that if I'd seen Midnight Special first then I'd have unhesitatingly declared it a masterpiece.  It's a heartfelt drama about the awful lengths required of loving parents, especially of those whose children are, through no possible faults of their own, neither normal or entirely comprehensible.  And then second - a rather distant second in places - it's an ingenious science-fiction chase thriller built upon a chassis of other great science-fiction chase thrillers, most of them from the eighties.  Which, sadly, is the point at which it lost me a touch: I just don't have the nostalgia not to want Midnight Special to carry on being excitingly original all the way through to its conclusion.  Still, here's another one I'm eager to revisit, and I think maybe the love will come in time.

1) Arrival

It seems to be the case that whether you consider Arrival merely an exceptionally good science fiction film or a flat-out modern classic largely comes down to its ending, for there's not much question that the first two thirds are superlative: a delightful bit of smart genre movie-making told with utter seriousness by one of the better directors working today, abetted by a fine team of craftspeople - a sci-fi film with honest to goodness interesting cinematography! - and some fine acting.  Then that ending comes, and - well, it didn't work for me, but it wasn't film-wrecking either.  Still, even if I'm a little sad that I'm giving the number one spot to a movie I liked but didn't love, I refuse to bitch too harshly on Arrival, because it represents precisely the kind of thing I'd like to see more of in cinemas - and that the universe gave us a Denis Villeneuve adaptation of a Ted Chiang short story remains a wonder of the highest order.

Monday, 9 January 2017

2016: A is for Andrei Rublev, B is for Babymetal, C is for Cat Sisters

So, I've blogged already about what fiction I had out in 2016 - a novel, a short story collection in both paperback and hardback, a novella and the first issue of a comic book miniseries - and I've got to say, I'm hellaciously proud of all that.  I had some work out last year that I'm seriously pleased with, long, short and in-between, and that's no small thing.  Frankly, if 2016 had just been about the writing I had published then it would have been an infinitely better experience.

Now, it seems petty to grumble about a year when almost everything seemed to go wrong for almost everyone, but boy was that a rotten twelve months, practically from start to finish.  Sickness and surgery, professional setbacks, insurance nightmares, house problems, money worries, family health scares - it was just nonstop.  And even the publishing stuff, which looks impressive on the face of things, wasn't so good in practice.  Almost all of 2016's short story acceptances, for example, actually belonged to submissions made in the tail end of 2015.  Even then, it would have proved a high watermark year for sales had a small publisher by the name of Time Alone Press not reneged on the $300 they owed me, having strung me and sixty or so other folks along for more than a year.

But that's a subject we'll return to when I have more time, and also the extent of my complaining, because in time-honoured tradition (my own, established all of a couple of years ago) I want to take this opportunity to list a few of the good things that happened in what history's probably going to end up calling Year Zero or something equally portentous.

- Thanks to Ian Sales, I got back into World Cinema in a big way.  There have been amazing directors making amazing films all around the planet for, like, a century now.  Who knew?  Well, lots of people, obviously, me included, but I'd drifted into some awfully lazy film-watching habits and I'm immensely glad to have drifted back out.  Again, largely thanks to Sales and his pernicious influence (and gifting of surplus DVD box sets) I've been binging on works by people like Haneke, Herzog, Kieslowski and Tarkovsky, as well as discovering many a new director I'd never heard of and rediscovering some old favourites from my days as a shut-in cinephile teenager.

- Same goes for music.  This has been something I've been experimenting with ever since I started
writing full-time, really, but 2016 was the year when my tastes got distinctly strange.  From J-Pop to Trance to Post-rock to African Blues, I feel comfortable in saying that my listening over the last twelve months has been on the eclectic side, and that I now have a pretty interesting CD collection - if only in the sense of that ancient Chinese curse, "May you have an interesting CD collection."

- I'm steadily getting back into shape.  I hope to have a crack at a Fells marathon later in the year, because, why not?  Okay, there are plenty of reasons why not, and they all start with "Hey, Tallerman, you do realise that running a marathon over actual wilderness is probably going to kill you?"  But let us not think too much of such reasons, or I'll bottle it before I ever get started.

- The benefit of having non-stop house problems and spending an inordinate amount of money I couldn't afford is that the house I bought five or so years ago as little more than a brick shell - sans heating, carpets, a shower, or much of anything else - is now finished.  Oh, sure, there are jobs I still want to do, it's probably in the nature of a more-than-a-hundred-years-old house that there's eternal scope for improvement, but all told it's a nice home these days.  And somehow the staggering amounts of work that have gone into the place only make it feel more special.

- And, as anyone who's even glanced at the blog will probably have noticed, I've been having a great deal of fun with the nineties anime watching.  That's drawing towards an end now, I think, partly for the reason that I've absolutely exhausted the limits of what can be reasonably found and partly because, let's face it, there are limits to the amount of nineties anime that any one human being can watch before they start to expect giant robots and tentacle beasts around every corner.

- And then there's the big - the very big, and the actually book-related - news.  Which is that, as of about a week ago, I've signed a contract for another novel.  If you're following my career even slightly then you can probably guess what it is, but the official announcement will be along very soon.  My promise to myself was that if I didn't have money coming in at the end of this third year of writing full-time then that would be the end of the experiment.  But I do, and it isn't.  This is, on a personal level, one hell of a thing.

Whatever global catastrophes await in 2017, I can't imagine that it's exactly going to be an easy year for me personally.  By no means have I made it, whatever the hell that would mean.  But I get to keep doing the job I like most and think I'm best suited to, and that surely has to count for something.  And I'll have at least one new book out.  This is exciting stuff, and definite forward progress!